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A dietetics professor at University of Wisconsin-Stout is praising a decision announced Thursday, Nov. 7, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that it plans to phase out what has become public enemy No. 1 in the food industry — trans fat.
Kerry Peterson, an associate professor in the food and nutrition department, agrees with the FDA that eliminating the artery-clogging substance could help prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year.
"Health-wise, I believe this is a really good thing. Consuming trans fat is so detrimental to our heart health, and there is no value to keeping it in our diet," said Peterson, a registered dietitian.
Trans fat can increase levels of bad cholesterol and decrease levels of good cholesterol,
While Peterson applauds the FDA's decision, she sees at least a couple of issues related to removing trans fat: What will it be replaced with, and will it help people eat healthier?
"When we take things out of food, we often add something back. What will food companies add to the food so that it tastes good and people will buy it?" she asked. "Will that change be a benefit or detriment to health?"
For example, if food companies remove trans fat but replace it with solid animal fat, or saturated fat, little progress will have been made, she said.
"Food companies and restaurants can use healthier plant oils as an alternative, and some are already doing so, but these oils are not as shelf-stable. So there are issues of food packaging that will need to be discussed, increased cost to consumers, increased waste because frying oil needs to be changed more frequently," she said.
Using more liquid plant oils also will put pressure on farmers to produce more oil seeds.
Consumer preference also could be a problem, she said, asking, will a doughnut taste the same without trans fat?
"I think these bigger issues are going to be the barrier for the FDA," Peterson said.
The key to preventing heart attacks in the long run, Peterson said, is to follow an overall healthy approach to eating.
"Focus on building a healthy plate that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole-grains like brown rice or whole wheat bread, lean proteins and low-fat milk. For now, avoid foods with the term 'partially hydrogenated' in the ingredients list," she said.
The FDA first plans to collect public comments for the next two months.
Trans fat, used in processed and restaurant foods, is generally believed to be worse than saturated fat but is popular because it's inexpensive and can improve shelf life, texture and flavor. Trans fat is formed when hydrogen and vegetable oil are mixed in a chemical process called partial hydrogenation, Peterson said.
An example is turning liquid vegetable oil into stick margarine.
Along with solid margarines, trans fat often is found in crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, baked goods, fried foods and highly processed foods, she said.
Peterson recently spoke at UW-Stout about the impact of dietary fat on high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, the good cholesterol. She discussed research she has been doing on HDL for five years, especially in the past year.
UW-Stout has undergraduate programs in dietetics; food science and technology; and family and consumer sciences. It also has graduate program in food and nutritional sciences.